Public Release:  Climate change, terrorism two big risks of 21st century

Michigan State University

What sounds like the opening line of a joke -- "what does a melting polar cap and a suicide bomber have in common?" -- is actually at the center of how society understands and responds better to risk.

Climate change and terrorism are two of the most pervasive risks of the 21st century - and among the most taxing to policy makers, said Tom Dietz, director of the Environmental Science and Policy Program at Michigan State University. Today's session "Risk and Society" at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual convention addresses how to learn broadly from both risks to better respond.

"Across a whole spectrum of problems in society there are common issues with a lot of scientific content, but that also have a lot of uncertainty," Dietz said. "But we have to use science to make good decisions, and we have to understand peoples' values and know how to weigh those values."

Both global warming and terrorism are fraught with uncertainties - even as consequences are clear-cut, Dietz said. Trade-offs in values - security vs. privacy, convenience vs. economy - weigh heavily on decisions. Communicating risk and science-based solutions to the public also are crucial.

The session, which brings together experts in climate change and terrorism, sociologists, a political scientist and a geographer-- all experts on risk -- is meant to generate discussion on how to translate information and experience into useful policy.

"We need to ask if we've learned ways of putting that kind of information together to make good decisions," Dietz said. "In particular - can we learn across areas so we don't have to reinvent it in each situation?"

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